Part 3 of series: Denominations, Toothpaste, and Toilet Paper
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
Yesterday I began reflecting on the recent discover that Protestants in American are more loyal to their toothpaste than to their denomination. I suggested that, for many of us, we consider our “brand” to be Christian rather than “Presbyterian” or “Methodist” or whatever. But I believe there are other reasons why Protestants are happier to switch denominations than from Crest to Colgate.
Denominations are an Inconsistent Brand
Brands, it seems to me, get loyalty by consistency. I must confess that I frequent the McDonald’s brand of fast food. Partly it’s a matter of convenience. Partly it’s because McDonald’s places franchises in airport terminals. Partly it’s because almost all McDonald’s now have Wi-Fi Internet connections. And, partly it’s because McDonald’s is consistent.
In fact, McDonald’s is tediously consistent. You can almost always count on McDonald’s to be conveniently located and scrupulously clean. The menu, conspicuously located on the wall, is virtually identical to the menu in any other McDonald’s venue. This is true even if you travel overseas, with some notable exceptions. I remember once going to a McDonald’s in Switzerland and being surprised to find beer on the menu. And even throughout the U.S. you can sometimes discover regional differences among McDonald’s menus. But, for the most part, a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. Period. You can count on it. (Photo: A tray of European McDonald’s food, including beer.)
The same is true with toothpaste brands, by the way. Crest in Massachusetts is the same as Crest in California. Colgate in Texas is just like Colgate in Wisconsin. Trustworthy brand consistency.
But not when it comes to Protestant denominations. You can usually find a wide variety of church experiences within any single denomination. Take my denomination, for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA). Just look at us. You can find Gothic or Georgian Presbyterian churches that are well over a hundred years old, and ultra-modern churches built within the last decade. They look nothing alike, and there’s no way you can be sure from a distance what sort of church you’re seeing. If, on the other hand, you catch a glimpse of the golden arches along the highway, you know you’re passing a McDonald’s restaurant. (Photo: You know exactly where I was having lunch. But you can’t be sure what brand of church was across the street. You get extra credit if you can tell me where this church is and identify it’s denomination. Clue: This is one of my favorite towns.)
And that’s just the outside. You’ll find just as much variation on the inside. Some Presbyterian churches worship in traditional sanctuaries with hardwood pews and large pipe organs. Other Presbyterian churches worship in worship centers or school auditoriums with folding chairs and rock bands. Many Presbyterian churches offer both extremes. And then there’s everything in between.
You might expect a fair amount of theological consistency within denominations. This may be true for some, but not in the PC(USA) and similar mainline denominations. Some of our churches are very conservative theologically, holding the Bible as the infallible or inerrant Word of God and salvation to be found only in Jesus Christ. Other PC(USA) churches accept the Bible as one, fallible authority among many, and believe that people can be saved in a wide variety of ways. I know Presbyterian pastors who believe that all people will be saved no matter whether they have a relationship with Christ or not. And I know Presbyterian pastors who think that one must have an explicit faith in Christ in order to be saved.
Let me offer one more salient example that features the “pet issue” of the PC(USA). A good friend of mine is a Presbyterian pastor who upholds biblical authority even when it’s unpopular. Thus he believes that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong and is willing to say so when needed. He doesn’t spend much time preaching about sex. But when he does, he speaks plainly in light of his convictions.
Several years ago my friend was preaching on a passage that dealt with marriage. During his sermon, he mentioned briefly that Scripture does not support sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman. At that moment, a couple stood up and left the church service, obviously intending to express their public disapproval of my friend’s point. The couple had been visiting, and, obviously, they never came back. Some time later my friend learned that the man who left was a Presbyterian pastor from another part of the country. Not only did he disagree with my friend, but he did so with enough passion to march out of the service.
This story illustrates one more way that the Presbyterian Church (USA), like most mainline denominations, is utterly diverse. If you visit a PC(USA) congregation next Sunday, you’ll have no way of knowing in advance what that church teaches about human sexuality.
So the Presbyterian “brand” is terribly inconsistent, even within one branch of American Presbyterianism. It gets more complicated when you remember that there are multiple Presbyterian denominations. This means that if you move from one place to another, you simply cannot predict whether the Presbyterian church in your new community will be anything like the one in your former community. In fact, the Methodist church in your new town may be much more like the Presbyterian church in your former town than the Presbyterian church in the new town.
The inconsistency of denominational brands has much to do with the lack of denominational loyalty among Protestants in America. You’d find the same with toothpaste if it varied as widely as churches. If Crest in California tasted like mint, while Crest in Texas tasted like bubblegum, you can be fairly sure that Crest lovers from one state would switch brands when they moved to the other state.